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TIME HAS COME FOR WILSON TO VISIT SOME OLD FRIENDS

Not long ago, United Airlines ran a TV commercial that had an interesting relationship to the Buffalo Bills.

The commercial opened with a business meeting at which the big boss announced to his key employees that the firm had lost touch with its old customers. "They don't know who we are anymore," he said.

Then he circulated among his staff, distributing airline tickets to various points and instructing them that, "We're going to make friends with our customers again." The boss took a ticket himself and announced that he was off to see a special old customer.

That's how business is done in the real world.

When a firm finds itself in a monopoly situation, apparently it is exempt from such enterprise. At least that's the impression gained from reading Ralph Wilson's latest comments about the Bills' lease negotiations, or non-negotiations, with Erie County.

Wilson views us darkly because cranes and bulldozers are not buzzing throughout Western New York as they are in places like San Jose and Columbus, Ohio. The major drop in Bills' season-ticket sales seemed to have erased his memory of the average attendance of 74,000 at Bills' games in the last 10 years, best figure in the entire NFL.

Wilson's comments beg a question: "What are the Bills going to do to help themselves?"

Maybe the owner should spend some more time here. I think he would find that a great many of his customers are feeling alienated from the Bills with all their talk of greener grass in other pastures. Wilson is doing quite a bit of the alienating himself.

We know we are in the rust belt. We've been there for 40 years. Why rub our noses in it? We'd all like three or four Fortune 500 companies to relocate here with thousands of high-paying jobs. There is now a general feeling among the fans that, "If you're going to negotiate, then drop the posturing, stop whining and negotiate. If you've decided to move, then stop tormenting us and move."

Some historical perspective is in order here.

When Rich Stadium was built, Wilson insisted upon a capacity of 80,000 despite this being a small market. The result is that the educated consumers here know that unless the Bills have a standout team, chances are it will always be fairly easy to buy seats, even the week of the game, depending upon how attractive the matchup.

Stadiums in much larger markets have smaller capacities. The new domed stadium in St. Louis seats 66,000; the new one in Atlanta 71,000. The capacity in Philly is about 65,000; in Dallas under 66,000; in San Francisco 70,000 and Chicago under 70,000.

The consumers here are not members of a cult, waiting for "Doe" to tell them to suit up in their shells. They know the Bills are a team in transition. They are skeptical and their skepticism isn't going to be eased by having a gun put to their heads. They'll wait for this edition of the Bills to prove something to them, not the other way around.

As for the talk of the Bills not being in a financial situation to compete, there is a disastrous precedent for that sort of attitude. By the middle '60s, the Bills, largely built by the drafts of 1961-63, were twice champions of the old AFL with an NFL-style team of strong defense and ball-control offense which might have catapulted them into an era of success after the 1966 merger between the leagues.

What killed those chances was Wilson's decision to drastically reduce his financial commitment to signing top players. In 1964, only one of the top four draft choices was signed in the talent war with the NFL. In the next two drafts, the Bills selected lesser players whom they felt they had a better chance to sign. They didn't even sign most of the lesser talent.

The result was the crumbling of the championship team at a time it needed to be refreshed. Starting in 1967, the Bills won only 17 games in the next six seasons.

It's understandable that the fans here, especially those of long standing, are skeptical of what will happen in the post-Jim Kelly era.

What if that sweetheart contract Wilson dreams of in some distant NFL Shangri-la doesn't materialize? What if the Wall Street bull market that spawned the luxury box culture suddenly became a bear market and sports moguls began to ponder half gainers off a 35th-floor ledge? What if a new lease is signed eventually?

What if the lowly customers in the ordinary seats became important once again, as they did when they were building the Bills and the rest of pro football?

When Wilson returns to Western New York for the Bills' game Saturday night in Rich Stadium, maybe he ought to pause and take a long look at the legend on the wall over the tunnel entrance. It reads: "The 12th Man."

Once upon a time, it meant a great deal.

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